Precis of Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives

Dr. Angus Menuge, PhD

The following is a precis of Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Ashgate, 2013).

Outline of the Book

The collection is divided into three sections.  The first section concerns the bedrock foundation of human rights, and contributors explore the merits of theistic and naturalistic accounts.  A second section explores the nature, scope and limits of religious freedom.  The third section discusses the best way to motivate cultural acceptance and enforcement of human rights protections.

I. The Foundation of Human Rights.

In the first chapter, Paul Copan investigates the ontological foundation of human rights and provides rigorous arguments to show the superiority of theism over naturalism.  He also provides an extensive rebuttal to the perennial Euthyphro dilemma, showing its attempt to undermine a theistic foundation for ethics to be without merit.   By contrast, the second chapter by Paul Cliteur supports the contrary view that human rights derive from secular sources.  He argues that religion is an inadequate foundation because it can and does promote harm discernible by secular reason, and thus the secular state is justified in restricting religious liberty when it promotes such harm.
Cliteur’s attempt to secularize human rights depends on the assumption that right and wrong can be determined through an understanding of human nature without God.  This would appear to require a naturalistic account of the origin of human nature, as some claim to find in Darwin.   In my contribution to this volume (chapter 3), I explore the merits of this proposal by examining the case for Evolutionary Ethics.  I argue that on Darwinian grounds, the most reasonable conclusion is that human rights are either non-existent or unknowable.  This is because of the radical contingency of our moral sense on our natural history, a point Darwin himself emphasized.  I end with the suggestion that this shows the importance of a transcendent foundation for human rights as found in the Bible.
Yet, in chapter 4, Friedrich Toepel raises the concern that in a world of religious pluralism, appeal to revelation, while it may be correct, is not a practicable way to implement human rights legislation. For example, the death penalty for apostasy recognized in some Islamic states, is inconsistent with the right of the freedom of religious conscience recognized by Jews and Christians.  This worry arises even among secularists because, for example, Kantians, utilitarians and Aristotelians have quite different understandings of what constitutes human flourishing.  Thus, Toepel raises the pragmatic question: given the disagreements about human rights, what is the best legal model for advancing human rights protections?  Toepel offers a framework (“constructo-positivism”) for implementing human rights legislation.

II. Religious Liberty and the Secular State.

A founding ideal of the United States is that the best protection for religious freedom is a secular state which permits the free exercise of religions without establishing any of them.  But what is meant by a secular state, and what guarantee is there that it will be neutral among religions?  In chapter 5, John Calvert argues that since “secular” means “not religious,” whether or not a secular state will be neutral depends crucially on its definition of religion.  His key point is that religions include non-theistic belief systems, like secular humanism, which should not be allowed to masquerade as neutral.  Thus if “religion” is defined narrowly, as theistic belief, the state is liable to lose its neutrality by favoring non-theistic religions over theistic ones.  Appealing to both philosophical and legal authorities, Calvert argues that the correct definition of religion is a broad one.   This conclusion has important consequences for the way theories about the origin of the life and the nature of human sexuality should be presented in public schools.

The question of religious liberty is also complicated by the diversity of religious beliefs in modern, pluralistic democracies.  In chapter 6, Vito Breda explores Lautsi v. Italy, a landmark case heard by the European Court of Human Rights on religious symbols in the classroom.  The Court took the view that in a pluralist context, secularism can no longer be presumed to be a neutral, default position, since this would effectively empty the public square of some religious expressions while allowing secularism itself to be established.  So, within certain limits, the Court decided that states should be allowed discretion in order to accommodate a plurality of religious perspectives.

But what are those limits on religious freedom?  Surely Paul Cliteur is right that some people have advocated harm in the name of religion, and particularly in a pluralistic context, citizens need protection from religiously motivated violence.  In chapter 7, John Warwick Montgomery explores the vexed issue of when and where restrictions on religious liberty can be justified.  It turns out that this depends on a correct understanding of religious freedom, which is something religions disagree about!  However, as a noted apologist as well as a human rights advocate, Montgomery argues that the Bible can be defended as the most reliable standard.  This source discloses the nature and limits of religious freedom, and, Montgomery argues, can be shown independently to be best for society.

III. Enforcing and Motivating Human Rights.

There is little point calling something a human right if there is no redress in case that right is violated.  Thus the very idea of a human right is connected to the proper means of punishment for human rights abuses.  In chapter 8, Hendrik Kaptein considers how best to understand the idea of retributive justice.  He argues that it is best understood as an attempt to restore victims (as far as possible) to the situation they were in before the abuse occurred.  Retribution is one way to show what it means for a human right to be respected, as it attempts to restore the enjoyment of that right.   Kaptein also argues that the chasm separating human rights law and actual enforcement requires urgent reform.
Dallas Miller agrees, and in chapter 9, he notes that while international human rights protections abound, massive abuses continue.  Despite the historic abolition of slavery in England and the US, a new kind of slavery is actually increasing worldwide.  Miller contrasts secular and religious motivations for human rights reforms and provides historical and contemporary data to show that the most effective human rights movements have been guided by Judeo-Christian principles.  These principles provide not only an ontological foundation of human rights but also a pragmatic foundation, since they lead people to recognize and care about the value of all human beings.
Finally, in chapter 10, Dobrochna Bach-Golecka explores the pivotal role of the Church in promoting a high view of human worth and dignity. The church influences the norms a culture accepts, provides criteria for right and wrong, and can call both its members and society to repentance.  She shows how the Catholic Church operates at the congregational, regional and international level to support the value of all human life and to promote solidarity in the face of oppression.